Going Native: Ethnographic Research to Understand Mobile Workers

Author: Lynn Rampoldi-Hnilo, Senior Manager - Oracle Applications User Experience


Mobile communication and information devices have been evolving with recent improvements in battery life, security, device management, and memory bandwidth. New applications have exploded into the marketplace, enabling individuals to pick and choose applications that fit their social, information, and personal needs. In addition, there has been a blending of work and personal life, where access to both business and personal applications can happen in any environment at any time. It has become increasingly important to better understand how the mobile workforce responds to the current mobile environment, and to understand how they are using mobile devices, in which contexts, and how they may be using such technologies in unanticipated ways.

As part of a comprehensive user-centered design strategy, the Oracle Mobile User Experience team aims to understand as much as possible about enterprise mobile users. To do this, we decided to conduct in-depth ethnographic research with mobile workers to thoroughly understand the mobile workforce environment, so that we can point the way to new applications and user experiences for the mobile business user.

Field Research

Mobile behaviors are not easily self-reported, because they are opportunistic in nature (that is, mobile tasks are completed when convenient). Mobile behaviors are also often unexpected or unplanned by the user (for example, an urgent response needed to an email or a phone call from Mom). Therefore, the issues to be explored are contextual and are rooted in behavior.Field studies are more than simple observations; they are an exploration of meaning. The core of most ethnographic work is based on observation, interaction, and documentation.

Research was conducted in Singapore, India, and the U.S. to ensure a representation of mobile trends and user types across technologically advanced cultures, diverse mobile workforces, and emerging markets. Our approach was to take an in-depth look into a cross-section of users and understand their mobile usage, needs, and wants through interviews and observation of their day-to-day interactions at work and outside of the office. The sessions lasted about five hours and gave us the chance to intimately participate in a user’s day. During that timeframe, we spent about 30 minutes to get to know and form a rapport with the participant, then we observed them as they completed their work and daily tasks for approximately three hours. We concluded with a one-hour post-observational interview to follow up on observations and catch any details we may have missed earlier. Paired teams of researchers conducted this research.

From April to May, 2008, we conducted 33 ethnographic interviews with experienced users of mobile devices (for example, cell phones, PDAs, or other such technologies) who use their devices in both their work and personal life. Thanks to the efforts of our internal recruiting team, the interviews included 10 participants in India, 13 participants in Singapore, and 10 participants in the U.S. (a mixture of mobile users from New York and San Francisco). The people we talked to ranged from tech-savvy “mobile-philes” to those who only used basic phone features. The participants represented a wide range of fields and walks of life, including financial, pharmaceutical, general sales, field service, retail merchandising, manufacturing, portfolio management, media and entertainment, and college students.

In addition to our in-depth observation sessions, we also conducted a number of “guerilla” or “on-the-street” techniques to enhance our cultural experiences. We took pictures of billboards, collected magazines and mobile marketing brochures, conducted approximately 100 “on the spot” surveys with mobile users, and interviewed employees from mobile phone shops and service providers. No one was safe from our inquisition.


To describe what we learned and experienced, each member of the research team created a blog to share their story that captures the stimulation of senses, the cultures, the mobile worker, the personal side of mobile, and our observations. In this article, we present portions of each of the blogs to give you a taste of what happened while we were on the road and to highlight some of the insights in each of these abbreviated blogs. Please enjoy!

Team Findings - Excerpts from other team member blogs


Post a Comment:
  • HTML Syntax: NOT allowed

The Oracle Applications User Experience (OAUX) Usable Apps in the Cloud blog.

Oracle Applictions User Experience logo

Twitter Usable Apps on Twitter

Main OAUX Website:

Usable Apps